Whither National Curriculum Assessment Without Levels?


Do you ever get engaged with an educational issue, try to interest and involve others and find you are flogging a dead horse?

It’s difficult to know whether you alone can see the significance of the issue in question, or whether you have identified an imaginary problem, or something which has no real importance to others, perhaps because they understand things better than you; can see their way through more clearly.

I feel that way about assessment under the new National Curriculum. So, in an effort to clarify – for myself as well as others – whether or not there is a real point to address, let me restate the case.

I have been worrying away against this bone (of contention?) for some time. Consequently I feel rather less secure about some of this argument than normal so, if I have got something seriously wrong, do please help me to understand what it is!


The National Curriculum Expert Panel

Back in December 2011, the National Curriculum Expert Panel published its Report ‘A Framework for the National Curriculum’

Chapter 7 of the Report is about The Form of Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets. (For ease of reference I shall adopt the shorthand ‘PoS’ and ‘ATs’ other than in direct quotations. The emboldening in those quotations is mine.)

The Chapter begins by distinguishing between the two:

‘Programmes of Study highlight the focus of teaching and learning activities and how they might be developed. Attainment Targets are intended to make clear the learning outcomes that are expected as a result of experiencing the Programme of Study. Whilst the former describes what should be taught (‘recommended routes to attainment’), the latter confirms the standard expected (that ‘one has arrived’).’

After highlighting the importance of precision in ATs – and a lack of precision in the level descriptions within the current National Curriculum – the Panel opines that:

‘Attainment Targets in the presently established level descriptor form should not be retained…Instead, and consistent with separating ‘what is to be taught’ from ‘statements of standards’, we suggest an approach in which the Programme of Study is stated as a discursive statement of purposes, anticipated progression and interconnection within the knowledge to be acquired. Attainment Targets should then be statements of specific learning outcomes related to essential knowledge. This approach has the benefit of greater precision – both in orienting teaching and giving a clear rationale for teaching content – and in respect of assessment, since the Attainment Targets would be both detailed and precise.’

They suggest further consideration is given to the idea (attributed to Paul Black) that PoS could be:

Presented in two parallel columns. A narrative, developmental description of the key concept to be learned (the Programme of Study) could be represented on the left hand side. The essential learning outcomes to be assessed at the end of the key stage (the Attainment Targets), could be represented on the right hand side…

Taking this approach has much greater technical and practical integrity, and is likely to improve both learning and assessment. The key challenge will be to write Attainment Targets that are as few and concise as possible in the choice and expression of ‘essential’ learning outcomes. We do not want to encourage the promulgation of huge numbers of atomistic and trivial statements of attainment that characterised earlier versions of the National Curriculum.’

In the next Chapter, on Assessment, Reporting and Progression, the Expert Panel expresses concern at the use of National Curriculum levels in assessment.

They propose a ‘mastery model in their place:

‘We have therefore opted to recommend an approach to pupil progression that emphasises ‘high expectations for all’ – a characteristic of many high-performing jurisdictions. This conveys necessary teacher commitment to both aspiration and inclusion, and implies the specific set of fundamental achievements that all pupils should attain. The anticipated outcome remains that pupils are ready to progress at the end of each key stage, having mastered the knowledge identified in relevant schemes of work and/or Programmes of Study.’

Under this model, the ‘threshold criterion’ of summative assessment becomes the judgement of whether pupils are ‘ready to progress’:

‘The approach to progression that we are proposing carries implications for assessment, since the purpose of statutory assessment would change from assigning a ‘best fit’ level to each pupil to tracking which elements of the curriculum they have adequately achieved and those which require more attention.

For the reasons we set out in the previous chapter, the focus of ‘standard attained’ should be on these specific elements, rather than a generalised notion of a level. In plain language, all assessment and other processes should bring people back to the content of the curriculum (and the extent to which it has been taught and learned), instead of focusing on abstracted and arbitrary expressions of the curriculum such as ‘levels’. We believe that it is vital for all assessment, up to the point of public examinations, to be focused on which specific elements of the curriculum an individual has deeply understood and which they have not. As the research on feedback shows, summary reporting in the form of grades or levels is too general to unlock parental support for learning, for effective targeting of learning support, or for genuine recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of schools’ programmes. In line with Early Years Foundation Stage reporting, this suggests more detailed profiling of students’ attainment. There must be great care to avoid the problems of the past regarding development of highly cumbersome and bureaucratic assessment and reporting arrangements. However, we believe that constant assessment to levels is itself over-burdensome, obscures the genuine strengths and weaknesses in a pupil’s attainment, obscures parental understanding of the areas in which they might best support their child’s learning, and likewise, weakens teachers’ clear understanding and identification of pupils’ specific weaknesses or misunderstandings.’

The Panel adds that reporting:

‘Could be based on a ‘ready to progress’ measure broken down into key areas of subjects’

while Performance Tables:

Could be constructed on the basis of the proportions of pupils in any cohort having reached the ‘ready to progress’ level at the end of the key stage.’


Response to the Expert Panel

In June 2012, the Secretary of State published his response to the Expert Panel Report, in the form of a letter to its Chairman, also publishing initial draft PoS for Key Stages 1-2 in the core subjects of English, maths and science.

The letter says:

‘In order to ensure that every child is expected to master this content, I have, as the panel recommended, decided that the current system of levels and level descriptors should be removed and not replaced.

As you rightly identified, the current system is confusing for parents and restrictive for teachers. I agree with your recommendation that there should be a direct relationship between what children are taught and what is assessed. We will therefore describe subject content in a way which makes clear both what should be taught and what pupils should know and be able to do as a result.

I have considered carefully the panel’s suggestion that, in primary schools, all pupils should be expected to have grasped core content before the class moves on. The international evidence which you provided on this issue is indeed both interesting and important.

I do agree with the panel that there needs to be a relentless focus on ensuring that all pupils grasp key curriculum content. The removal of level descriptors and the emphasis in the new Programmes of Study on what pupils should know and be able to do will help to ensure that schools concentrate on making sure that all pupils reach the expected standard, rather than on labelling differential performance.

In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those that are falling below national expectations. We will consider further the details of how this will work.’

The FAQ briefing accompanying the announcement makes clear that the draft core primary PoS have been set out on a predominantly year-by year basis:

‘to give sufficient clarity in the progress pupils are expected to make from Year 1 to Year 6’

But this does not compromise schools’ flexibility:

‘Maintained primary schools are required to teach a Programme of Study by the end of each key stage. Schools will however continue to have the flexibility to move content between years, so long as they cover all the content by the end of the key stage. They will also be able to move on to the content covered in the next key stage early if they believe it is appropriate to do so.

The briefing explains that there will be further announcements about how the new National Curriculum should be structured including ‘issues such as the nature of attainment targets’ and there will be further consultation ‘on how attainment should be graded as part of the statutory assessment arrangements’.

The initial draft PoS in the primary core each have a single generic AT:

‘By the end of each Key Stage, pupils are expected to have the knowledge, skills and understanding of the matters taught in the relevant Programme of Study.’

This might suggest that the Government is taking the view that the sole purpose of the AT is to form a connection between the PoS and an associated end of KS assessment, whether a statutory test or teacher assessment. In all other respects, it is relying on the PoS to define subject-specific learning outcomes, contrary to the advice received from the Expert Panel.

To date I have seen no commentary on whether the draft PoS are sufficiently specific and outcomes-focused to support this expectation, but there must be some cause to question whether all of them consistently manage to be so, especially given the necessity for precision emphasised by the Expert Panel.


Second National Curriculum Review Announcement

On 7 February 2013, the Secretary of State made a second announcement, simultaneously publishing a slew of documentation including draft PoS for KS1-3 in all subjects and draft PoS for KS4 in some subjects including initial drafts in the three core subjects.

Other documents included a National Curriculum consultation framework document and associated Consultation Document and a consultation on Secondary School Accountability.

The latter says:

Accountability for primary schools and post-16 providers will be considered in separate consultation documents, which will be published shortly.’

The National Curriculum consultation document has this to say about ATs:

‘Legally, the National Curriculum for each subject must comprise both programmes of study and attainment targets. While programmes of study set out the curriculum content that pupils should be taught, attainment targets define the expected standard that pupils should achieve by the end of each key stage. Under the current National Curriculum, the standard is set out through a system of levels and level descriptions for each subject. The national expectation is defined as a particular level for the end of Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. At Key Stage 4, GCSE qualifications at grade C currently define the expected standard.

The Government has already announced its intention to simplify the National Curriculum by reforming how we report progress. We believe that the focus of teaching should be on subject content as set out in the programmes of study, rather than on a series of abstract level descriptions. Parents deserve a clear assessment of what their children have learned rather than a ‘level description’ which does not convey clear information.

A single statement of attainment that sets out that pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study will encourage all pupils to aspire to reach demanding standards. Parents will be given clear information on what their children should know at each stage in their education and teachers will be able to report on how every pupil is progressing in acquiring this knowledge.

We are currently seeking views on how to improve the accountability measures for secondary schools in England. The consultation can be accessed here

Approaches to the assessment of pupils’ progress and recognising the achievements of all pupils at primary school will be explored more fully within the primary assessment and accountability consultation which will be issued shortly.’

This is accompanied by a single broad consultation question: ‘Do you have any comments on the proposed wording of the attainment targets?’

The associated Framework Document shows that the generic AT has been extended to all draft PoS but the wording has been slightly revised:

‘By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.’

There is no reference to arrangements for grading pupil assessment as heralded in the June letter. The inference is presumably that this will be addressed in the still-awaited consultation on primary assessment and accountability (which leaves a big question mark over KS3 assessment.

Shortly after publication, however, it was confirmed that there would be a new grading system at the end of KS2. This news reached us via a Westminster Education Forum event which was open only to those who paid, and was publicised in a press report hidden behind a paywall:

The Department for Education is to announce plans for new grades that will rate pupils’ attainment at 11, form the basis of league tables and be used to identify under-achieving schools. Ministers must also decide whether to order extra tests for the most able children, or have a single set of tests with some questions designed to challenge the brightest pupils.’

I noted how odd it was that no explicit reference was made to this in the National Curriculum Review documentation itself, especially given the reference in the June 2012 letter.



Where Does this Leave Us?

The key inferences that I draw from this history are as follows:

  • The Expert Panel’s suggestion of a two-column approach to the NC, with ATs appearing alongside the PoS, has been set aside in favour of the PoS plus a single generic AT which applies solely to overall achievement at the end of each Key Stage.
  • The Government’s response to the Expert Panel’s suggestion that mastery and readiness to progress should form the basis of assessment is so far unclear. One might expect the upcoming consultation to clarify exactly how this will be squared with a grading system that will:

.‘Recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress…so that we can recognise and reward the .highest achievers as well as identifying those that are falling below national expectations’

  • We know that there will be a new grading system in the core subjects at the end of KS2. If this were to be based on the ATs as drafted, it could only reflect whether or not learners can demonstrate that they know, can apply and understand ‘the matters, skills and processes specified’ in the PoS as a whole. Since there is no provision for ATs that reflect sub-elements of the PoS – such as reading, writing, spelling – grades will have to be awarded on the basis of separate syllabuses for end of KS2 tests associated with these sub-elements.
  • This grading system must anyway be applied universally if it is to inform the publication of performance tables. Since some schools are exempt from National Curriculum requirements, it follows that grading cannot be derived directly from the ATs and/or the PoS, but must be independent of them. So this once more points to end of KS2 tests based on entirely separate syllabuses which nevertheless reflect the relevant part of the draft PoS. The KS2 arrangements are therefore very similar to those planned at KS4.
  • We know that there is discussion about whether or not to adopt a ‘core plus extension paper’ model for end of KS2 tests, to stretch the highest attaining learners. The decision on this point may also offer clues about the eventual shape of the grading system (If there is an extension paper it might be more likely to lead to the award of a ‘starred grade’ rather than a higher grade, for example.)
  • Pending the promised consultation, there is uncertainty about what happens to grading and reporting before the end of KS2. One imagines that the Government will wish schools to continue to undertake a separate end of KS1 teacher assessment, so as to provide a basis for a separate measure of progress across KS2 as a whole. It would be helpful if that used the same grading scale as end of KS2 assessment. End of KS3 assessment remains shrouded in mystery.
  • Once we move beyond end of Key Stage assessment to consider end of year assessment it becomes even harder to read the runes. It is conceivable that all such reporting could be grade free and based on the Expert Panel’s suggestion of ‘more detailed profiling of pupils’ attainment’, although – in schools still following the National Curriculum – that would have to be built upon the PoS in the absence of more specific ATs. Schools might choose to incorporate into profiles their own internal grading systems but, in practice, there is likely to be pressure to align end-of-year grading with the end of Key Stage grading arrangements. Parents will obtain greater clarity that way.
  • Those that still follow the National Curriculum might be able to utilise the year-by-year breakdown of the core PoS – ie basing their judgements on whether the learner has the knowledge, skills and understanding of the matters skills and processes specified for the year in question – but that is rather undermined by the statement in the FAQ briefing that schools have full flexibility to move content between years if they wish. And of course it does not apply outside the primary core and some schools will not follow the National Curriculum at all.


What Kind of Grading Scale?

All of which leads us to consider the design of a suitable grading scale.

It would seem to need two separate components, one reflecting attainment, another progression (These could be maintained as two entirely separate scales if necessary, but it seems more informative to link them together).

How many points should there be on each of the two sub-scales?

The current Primary Performance Tables focus principally on three levels of achievement at the end of KS2: ‘Levels 3 or below’,’ Level 4’ and ‘Level 5 or above’. However, the recent introduction of Level 6 tests suggests that greater differentiation is required, if only at the top end. That would suggest a four-point attainment sub-scale, or a five-point scale if there is a case for additional differentiation at the bottom as well as the top to maintain symmetry.

The Government might choose to move to a letter-based sub-scale A-E to put distance between the new arrangements and the old National Curriculum levels. Grade A would represent ‘well above grade expectations’; Grade E ‘well below grade expectations; Grade B ‘above grade expectations’; Grade D ‘below grade expectations’ and Grade C ‘at grade expectations’

As for progression, under current arrangements the key distinctions for Performance Table purposes are based on low, middle and high attainers, defined in terms of their KS1 performance and whether or not they have made the expected two levels of progress across KS2 (eg a Level 3 high attainer to Level 5+).

Under the new arrangements, if we assume that the same five-point A-E attainment scale is deployed at the end of KS1 as at the end of KS2, it would be possible to adopt a straightforward three-level progression sub-scale: 1 – an improved grade compared with KS1; 2 – the same grade as at KS1; 3 – a worse grade than at KS1.

This would produce some very similar to the Aunt Sally I published last June.


Declined(3) E3 D3 C3 B3 A3
Maintained(2) E2 D2 C2 B2 A2
Improved (1) E1 D1 C1 B1 A1
Well below (E)  Below (D)  At (C)  Above (B)  Well above (A)


Schools could be rewarded in Performance Tables for the proportion of their pupil cohort making good progress. In June I suggested a system of credits and double credits as follows:


Declined(3) x x x x x
Maintained(2) x x
Improved (1)   √√ √√ √√ √√
Well below (E)  Below (D)  At (C)  Above (B)  Well above (A)


I also suggested that an additional credit might be awarded for any pupil receiving a tick in receipt of the Pupil Premium.

Should this grading system be applied to end-year in-school subject-specific assessment, I proposed a broad equivalence between the attainment grade awarded and curricular performance which draws on the concept of mastery as proposed by the Expert Panel.

It was expressed in terms that apply only to schools still following the National Curriculum, but nevertheless adding significantly to the prescribed PoS in each subject. (I called these additions ‘the school’s supplementary curriculum’):

  • Well below: Has mastered the core National Curriculum requirements with difficulty; at significant risk of falling short of mastery; requires continued targeted challenge and support to maintain it.
  • Below: Has mastered the core National Curriculum requirements with support and made some progress with the school’s supplementary curriculum.
  • At: Has mastered the core National Curriculum requirements and the school’s supplementary curriculum.
  • Above: Has mastered the core National Curriculum requirements and the school’s supplementary curriculum with ease; beginning to anticipate the next stage of the National Curriculum programme of study;
  • Well above: Has mastered the core National Curriculum and the school’s supplementary curriculum with ease and is already mastering the next stage of the National Curriculum programme of study; requires continued targeted challenge and support to maintain this level of progress.


I find it conceptually difficult to think about such issues, needing constantly to remind myself of the implications of a scenario where National Curriculum levels are no more and a substantial proportion of schools (admittedly fewer in the primary sector) are not following the National Curriculum.

So do I have this analysis correct, or have I made a wrong turning at some point above? Are there alternative, better outcomes than the one I have proposed and, if so, what are they?




Following publication of Warwick Mansell’s post on the same topic, plus a brief Twitter exchange, I’ve been re-examining some of the argument above. Most of it still stands, though it seems most likely that – rather than creating an entirely new and parallel framework of AT-like outcome statements on which to build the preferred suite of KS2 tests – the final version of the core PoS are likely to be used for that purpose.

Such a decision would reinforce the importance of incorporating within the core PoS the set of tightly-drawn outcome statements that the Expert Panel advocated. In the absence of further clarification – and pending release of the primary consultation document – we must assume that scrutiny of the draft PoS during the current consultation process should take on board this added dimension.

If the KS2 tests are to be based on the PoS, rather than a separate set of ATs derived from them, the relationship between the tests and National Curriculum coverage becomes even more intimate. Whereas it might have been possible to define a different PoS that nevertheless satisfied a separate set of National Curriculum ATs, that option now seems closed. It follows that academies will have little choice but to follow the core PoS rather closely.

So closely, in fact, that it might have been preferable simply to vary academies’ funding agreements to make adoption of the core NC compulsory. But that would have all the makings of a major U-turn. Schools might object that they had been led to adopt academy status on false pretences.

There would be relatively less negative reaction if such a variation was confined to the primary sector, but that would raise the difficult question why primary academies should enjoy less curricular freedom than their secondary counterparts.

(That said, one could point to the same primary-secondary distinction amongst state-maintained schools still bound to the National Curriculum, since there is considerably more detail in the primary core than in the secondary equivalent.)

Even if this funding agreement route towards compulsion of primary academies to follow the core is deemed a bridge too far, a decision to link tests to the PoS may itself create something of a backlash, at least to the extent that primary academies have taken the academy route to buy themselves freedom from the relatively prescriptive requirements for English, maths and science.

What happens in the foundation subjects remains unclear. In many of those the draft PoS are much slimmer and it must be open to question whether they can sustain the weight of any assessment process. It may be left to schools to devise ATs that cover their own ‘supplementary content’ as well as the PoS.



February 2013

5 thoughts on “Whither National Curriculum Assessment Without Levels?

  1. So every pupil will grasp the “core” before the class moves on. The child that is the potential winner of the British Physics Olympiad will have to wait to move on until the one with Downs’ syndrome integrated into the same primary school class where there is only one class per year gets to demonstrate full grasp of the POS. Might be a long wait. Oh but that child doesn’t count. It has SEND – snag is that there is a continuum, not a discrete compartment with box of SEND children and the rest.

    Its a bit rich talking about “abstract level descriptions” that confuse parents. Putting eg the Computing POS through a reading age checker shows it requires 20+ years of formal education to read it! How abstract is that for parents? And the children?

    For a grading system based on and expected level, the first thing you have to do is define what the expected level is. Now it is true that the former level descriptors in the ATs were not particularly precise but they were much more so than a POS written in difficult language and describing content in a general way. Take Computing. “design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems”. What does it mean? Modelling tossing a coin in a spreadsheet is a real-world system, so is a flight simulator. If I teach all my KS3 kids how to build a simple spreadsheet that simulates tossing a coin is that enough? What about throwing a die? What about throwing 3 dice and looking at the probability distribution? At what point am I C, a B or an A? And if we are saying there should be no differentiation with all children only moving on when the weakest has grasped the core content why do we need a grading system in any case? There is no logic to any of this. In our culture with OFSTED, league tables etc. I’d be inclined to go with the simplest for my grade C. Teach all the children to do the coin tossing simulation and argue that that is the core requirement – where does it say it has to be something more difficult? It’s not my fault if the statutory curriculum is written in such a way that I can interpret it minimally. As soon as you say yes but what would the normal expectation be for a child of that age, we are back to square one.

    The thing I find the most objectionable about this professionally is it is not being honest. If the argument is that the NC gets in the way then get it out of the way and leave it to teachers. Don’t call things attainment targets that clearly are neither primarily to do with attainment nor are they targets. Don’t say on the one hand differentiation is not needed all should go at the pace of the weakest (or accelerate the weakest to the strongest) and then say we need to grade outcomes – that demonstrates we have no confidence in the former strategy. Don’t claim increased rigour and high expectation when there is greater vagueness and undefined expectation. Big words like “computational abstractions” do not have anything to do with the real rigour and expectation levels of teaching and learning at a classroom level. It is bureaucrats presenting the emperor with no clothes for political expediency.

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